In the latest chapter of what has become the longest-running story in NFL history, commissioner Roger Goodell now holds the ultimate trump card. The public statement coming out of his office Tuesday was that he had adjusted two penalties in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal and upheld two other suspensions. The real story is how Goodell scored the most important evidence he could ever hope to gain in this case. The Saints players gave him their words. The commissioner took care of the rest.
That should be the one thing we all focus on when looking at this matter today. If it's true -- and at this point, everything is debatable in this case -- three of the four players accused of wrongdoing in this scandal basically incriminated themselves when meeting with league officials during their appeals process in September. They used words like "cart-offs," phrases like "crank up the John Deere tractor" and confirmed that the Saints were pooling money that could be used as rewards for injury-causing hits. In other words, they apparently gave Goodell mostly everything he'd been looking for in this investigation.
The commissioner responded with a press release he'd surely been waiting to unleash for a month. Ever since a three-member appeals panel lifted the suspensions Goodell placed on those players -- Scott Fujita, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Jonathan Vilma -- there had been several questions about where this case was heading. What we learned was that Goodell still had serious muscle left to flex. He reduced the suspensions for Fujita (three games to one) and Hargrove (eight games to seven) while upholding the punishments for Smith (four) and Vilma (one year, although Vilma can be paid for his six weeks on the physically unable to perform list).
The league already had the goods on the higher-ups in this controversy, having suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, assistant Joe Vitt and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams months ago. What Goodell didn't have was enough public evidence to keep skeptics from wondering how he could go after the players involved. Now he has both proof and confirmation of exactly what he had uncovered. The players surrendered the most valuable weapon they had: their silence.
In a letter to Fujita, who now plays with the Cleveland Browns, Goodell wrote, "Your own comments confirm that players were encouraged to 'crank up the John Deere tractor and cart those guys off' the playing field." In a similar letter to Smith, Goodell also said, "Even in the face of repeated appeals to 'crank up the John Deere tractor and cart the guy off,' you and others now claim that the objective was instead merely to 'knock the wind out' of your opponents, requiring them to leave the game for only a play or two."
The fact that these players talked to Goodell at all is astounding. That he garnered this much detail is almost mind-blowing.
Then there's the case of Vilma. He had been so incensed by his alleged connection to the bounty scandal that he hired his own attorney and filed a defamation case against Goodell. He had been disgusted by the accusation that he offered $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Kurt Warner or Brett Favre out of games during the 2009 playoffs. If you read Goodell's letter to him, Vilma now looks like a man who wasted a lot of money and time.
Vilma apparently confirmed that: (1) cart-offs and knockouts were part of a broader program in place among the Saints' defensive players; (2) these terms referred to plays in which an opposing player had to leave the game for one or more plays; and (3) an opposing player's need for smelling salts under a trainer's care was a consequence of the kind that the program sought to achieve and for which players were offered cash rewards from the incentive pool. Even an avid "Law and Order" fan can see the lunacy in these statements. It doesn't make any sense for a player with so much to lose to be so forthcoming.
Maybe there's another side to this story, which wouldn't be surprising given that it has provided ample twists and turns over the past seven months. Maybe the players will come forward and claim their words were twisted, that Goodell simply took certain statements and spun them to his advantage. If it's the alternative, then these players really have some explaining to do. They couldn't have been this indignant for this long only to hand Goodell this kind of affirmation.
All four of these players have sued the NFL in federal court and fought the league through procedures called for by the current labor agreement. Their teammates have supported them; their fans have complained about the lack of due process in this case. The last thing we ever expected was for these same players to help the league in this battle. Hargrove seems to be the only one who wasn't willing to confirm anything in his meeting with Goodell (which also makes it hard to understand how his punishment ultimately was reduced).
The other possibility here is that Goodell is just really good at squeezing the truth out of players. They've complained about his disciplinary power for years, and this could be one more example of his strength. Last month he resembled a commissioner who had to consider backtracking on the biggest story of the offseason. Today he appears to have more ammunition than he ever needed.
Of course, the players still have one last option: They have 72 hours to appeal these suspensions. That recourse is still available because these punishments are now based on conduct detrimental to the league instead of the issue of whether the bounty program circumvented the salary cap. But few people likely care about such minutiae. The players can talk all they want at this point. From what we know, they've already said enough for Goodell's purposes.